Sunday, March 10, 2013

What Our Writing Says About Us

When we write we expose ourselves.

Writers who write "confessionals" or autobiographies already know this. They consciously choose to present themselves to the world. Of course, when they write directly about themselves, they get to pick and choose what they reveal. They get to manage the readers' impressions of them.

But even we fiction writers tell readers a lot  about ourselves whether we mean to or not. It's in
  • What we choose to write about.
  • How our characters think, feel, and behave.
  • Whether the ending is happy, sad, horrifying or depressing.
  • Whether the world we present is a good or a bad place to live in.
This is, perhaps, obvious when it comes to general or literary fiction. When we don't work within a genre we get to create a fictional world that operates however we want it to. Our characters can be good, evil, or a mixture of both. They can be motivated by fear, love, envy, hatred, lust, ambition or greed. The environment in which they move can be dangerous, threatening, boring, peaceful, competitive, energizing, joyful or stressful. The problems we give them to wrestle with can be easy to solve, challenging to deal with, or impossible to overcome. And, of course, our plot can take any form at all. We are limited only by the breadth of our imagination.

You might argue that novels by great writers achieve a universality that makes the personality, concerns, quirks and interests of the author irrelevant. This is true, of course. 

It really doesn't matter what Tolstoy cared about when we read War and Peace. What matters is that we are swept away, inspired. 

It is completely unimportant what personal demons Mark Twain may have had to wrestle with when we read Huckleberry Finn, What matters is the humanity of the characters and how we empathize with them.

Nevertheless, the novels tell us that Tolstoy was deeply concerned with philosophical and spiritual issues about how to live a good life and that Mark Twain was heavily invested in exposing the hypocrisies and social mores of his time.

The themes we choose and the way we handle them say a great deal about us.

But what about genre writers? Don't they follow a formula laid down for them long before they ever begin to write? And isn't that formula completely irrelevant to who they are as people?

Yes and no. I believe the very act of choosing the genre tells us a great deal about the writer. 

EVEN IF SHE THINKS SHE'S CHOOSING IT BECAUSE IT'S POPULAR WITH READERS!

A romance--and I would argue that Fifty Shades of Grey and it's sequels is a romance dressed up for modern readers--demands a feisty heroine, and a dangerous, dark stranger who both attracts and  scares the heroine with a love which she first resists but ultimately surrenders to, and, in so doing, finds lasting happiness. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: YOU CAN'T WRITE A SUCCESSFUL ROMANCE UNLESS YOU BELIEVE IN ITS PREMISES.

The so-called cozy mystery is another example.  These are mysteries, often English and often set in small villages, where the writer exposes the personality quirks of the characters in the process of solving a murder mystery. Although the murder is a horrifying event, the characters are understandable and mostly sympathetic. The world of the cozy mystery is benign, and the author's goal is to expose the variations and complexities of human nature. Evil may be present but it is overcome.  Louise Penny's novels are examples. I believe that writers of cozy mysteries believe in the benevolent universe of these novels. If they didn't, they would write something else.

So think about your own writing. What draws you? What kind of people populate your stories? Is the world of your story a good place or a bad place?

Who knows: maybe you can learn as much about yourself from looking at the stories you write as you could ever learn by keeping a journal!

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